Farm Labor Exchange, Donkey Suit, and Other Barter Agreements

This installment of an ongoing series about reader-negotiated barter agreements looks at a farm labor exchange and a donkey suit—a man who traded two burros for hand-tailored silk duds.

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A fine new donkey suit; a Michigan man traded two burros to a local tailor in exchange for a custom fit silk suit.


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Bill Wodraska shared some of his thoughts regarding one of mankind's better ideas — barter — and offered up an interesting suggestion: "I'd like to see a continuing feature on barter agreements and skill-and-labor exchanges," said Bill. "You're on!" MOTHER EARTH NEWS replied.

Farm Labor Exchange

One of the most important events—both social and financial—for back-to-the-landers is the farm auction. Such shindigs offer the newcomer a chance to make friends, pick up a lot of good information, and—perhaps—even snag a bargain or two!

After attending several country bid ups, though, we began to realize something. All too often, the reason for the sale turned out to be that the farmer in question had gone broke. And, just as often, the cause of the financial disaster was overinvestment in expensive (and seldom used) equipment. So when we bought our 60 acres in the country, we decided to avoid owning machinery as much as possible.

For the first years—while we were getting to know the neighbors and learning about farm life—we simply paid for work that required expensive equipment. Even that cost less than actually buying the necessary machines. For the past several years, though, we've been able to swap our time for the use of our neighbor's farming tools. We gladly spend several days helping a fellow agrarian do his work, knowing that—in return—we'll do much the same work at home using the same equipment: his! Our assistance has become as indispensable to him as his tractors and implements are to us because we all save money—and enjoy a strong sense of community in the bargain.

We also barter for homebaked bread (and fresh milk and eggs). It sure beats paying high prices plus sales tax for stale supermarket produce.


Donkey Suit

My favorite swap took place back In 1967, when my family and I had a farm in Perry, Michigan. A friend (who was "bucks up" at the time) invited me along on a visit to a Hong Kong tailor who was holding an open house in nearby Lansing. My friend intended to place an order, while I—though curious—was broke.

Well, we traveled into town, looked at the goods (fantastic fabrics!), and my buddy decided on several garments. After the tailor had taken the necessary measurements and the financial arrangements were made, the tape-wielder asked me if I wanted a suit. I sure did, I replied, but I couldn't afford his prices. Just then a thought struck me! I had a pair of Sicilian burros that I'd been trying to sell (unsuccessfully) for several months. How about a deal, I proposed?

The tailor's face actually lit up! He said that he'd always wanted to swap something, but that I was the first customer who'd ever asked. Well, before long I was all measured up for a custom-made silk suit, and off we went. The next morning the Hong Kong representative pulled up to the farm in a Lincoln Continental with a U-Haul trailer in tow. We loaded the burros, and he headed off for Arizona with a gift for his grandchildren that I'll bet they never forgot. Three weeks later I received the suit along with an invoice marked "Paid in Full. Amount: Two Burros". Now there's an outstanding swap if I've ever made one!


Alaska Barter

I live in Uganik Bay, on the northwest side of Kodiak Island. It's a raw but awesome land, where life is controlled by the tides and by the sun's position in the sky. Although we're only about 60 miles from town, the settlement is pretty inaccessible. There are no roads to this part of the island, and the only way to reach our home is by float plane or boat.

In the summer, the bay—30 miles long and 10 miles across at the mouth—is alive and jumping as tenders, seiners, fishermen, and cannery workers follow the salmon runs. But when the salmon are far upstream and the leaves begin to turn, the population dwindles to about a dozen households. We support ourselves by hunting and trapping, and consuming whatever larder we have stored up during the summer months.

In this remote corner of Alaska, the barter system is a way of life. It is not uncommon for neighboring fish camps to trade groceries—fresh venison for eggs and produce from town, or garden goods for store-bought ones—and it's a much-practiced custom for neighbors to trade work. For example, help on the repair of a skiff will bring aid in cutting a firewood supply. Books and other scarce reading materials make the circuit year round, as does children's clothing. The lack of currency (not to mention places to spend it!) makes this swapping necessary as well as convenient.

Our most unusual and successful barter involved the services of a bush pilot. As debts for plane rides in the busy summer months piled up, we began to look for an alternative mode of payment to our friend. He was delighted when we offered a cross-fox fur from this winter's catch, and when the snows came we were just as delighted to fulfill our part of the bargain. Now we try to trade our winter's harvest for needed goods or services whenever possible.

By the way, I hear on the radio that there is now a statewide organization that encourages Alaskans to use the barter system. I hope it is as successful as our trades have been!


Cow Trading

Along the upper Columbia River, where stores are often few and far between, barter is more a necessity than an art. One of my favorite swaps involved a young heifer. She was a silly half-wild Charolais and Hereford cross with no respect for fences and an eager eye for that elusive "greener grass."

Shortly after we got her, the beast decided to head for our neighbor's field. She proved skittish when we tried to round her up, and (after two days of chasing after her) we decided to "bring the mountain to Mahomet". Our friends next door swapped us a tape deck and a rifle, and the heifer was theirs. Easier said than done, though. In short order she was through the fence and back to our place.

Since it seemed easier to trade her than to return her, that durn fool calf was swapped back and forth three times in the next six months. Strangely enough, every trade left two satisfied barterers, one rid of a "silly, breachy heifer" and the other in possession of a "fine beef cow"!


Live-In Caretakers

My husband Tom and I (we're Peace Corps volunteers working with a Gardens and Nutrition program in the rural highlands of Guatemala) came across what we think is a pretty good international swap.

A Guatemalan friend of ours (the proprietor of the local hardware store) owns a couple of acres planted in young apple trees. The land also sports a four-room house with tile roof and floors (a lovely place to laze in a hammock and watch the rain wash the pine-covered slopes) and a huge barn. One can pick apples, peaches, and pears from the porch of the house. There are lush roses, fuschias, hibiscus, poinsettias, and citrus trees, plus a chorus of exotic birds. The spread also includes plenty of land suitable for gardening and raising lots of chickens and rabbits.

All this is ours rent-free! Don Haroldo asked us to live in this little paradise, without cost, and all he wanted in return was for us to keep an eye on his apple trees. We love our "new" house so much that we've volunteered to paint and plaster the building, dig a latrine, develop the existing wells, and generally clean and fix the place up. Our patron is happy to provide all the materials we need for the task.

In addition, our trading partner is interested in working with us on projects such as MOTHER EARTH NEWS' Hydraulic Ram Pump, which he wants to build so he can irrigate his apple trees from the stream during the dry season.

We may be a long way from home here in our "mini-Eden," but we've discovered that the age-old practice of barter is not bounded by borders or language.

Chichicastenago, Guatemala